She made the pledge before she knew how many kids she’d signed on to help. When it turned out to be 100 kids, she took a big breath and made it happen.
“This is really accidental,” says Suzanne Gladden of the nonprofit she founded two and a half years ago.
It was October 2014, and Gladden had just pulled into the Target parking lot to buy gifts for the birthday parties her daughters would be attending that weekend. In her Round Rock neighborhood, parties often go “over the top.” One year, Gladden rented Shetland ponies to fit the unicorn theme for her daughter’s party.
“They don’t even realize how lucky they are,” she says. “And I thought, I would like my kids to realize how special this is, for them to have these parties.” Sitting in her car, Gladden pulled out her cell phone and called the Texas Baptist Children’s Home.
“I would like to donate a birthday party for every child for one year,” Gladden stated.
“Well, we have 100 kids, ma’am,” the volunteer coordinator answered.
“And I was like, whoa! But I’d already said it. I wasn’t going to go back on what I said,” Gladden recalls.
And Happy Birthdays was born, with a mission to provide birthday parties to homeless and foster children in Central Texas. They’ve provided 1,400 parties already, with a goal to provide 1,000 in 2017. Gladden recently chatted with us to explain how the birthday boxes are assembled and delivered to all those smiling faces.
AF: How do you deliver a birthday party?
Gladden: We came up with the idea of the birthday box, and that was basically so I could have people make these parties ahead of time. We don’t attend the actual party. It’s more like a service project you can do at home with your family or at church or whatever, and you drop the box off. On our website, there’s a volunteer page, telling how to make a box.
AF: Did you recruit help from the beginning?
Gladden: I thought, I know a lot of people, I’m sure a lot of people would want to help. So I bought a bunch of banker boxes and I just started telling my friends and posting on Facebook. In one month, I had 100 people, and the second month, I had 200 people. We just kind of kept going, finding more children and more organizations to serve. We now serve 18 different organizations. I wasn’t looking for this to be as big as it is, but there’s just so much support.
AF: It seems like a fun and easy service project.
Gladden: This is an easy, concise project you can do with your family at home.
Sometimes it’s difficult to find the perfect opportunity. Do you have to go somewhere? Do you need a background check? And relatable for a child to understand. When you say, “There are kids that no one cares that it’s their birthday,” they’re like, “What?!” And if they want to do something different, just email us. I’ve booked high school kids and people through Dell to come and work on site. We’re having a ladies fundraising night on May 11, and we do our big birthday party in November.
AF: How do you coordinate the need for birthdays with the volunteers?
Gladden: Organizations send me their birthdays every month. I post them on the calendar, and then a volunteer goes on our website and sends me an email to take care of that child, and I give them more specific directions. Then they make the box and deliver it to the place themselves. You don’t meet the child.
AF: Growing something like this takes a lot of skill. Did you have that already?
Gladden: I was a stay-at-home mom for 10 years. Before that, I worked for a university doing event planning, recruiting and some fundraising. Now, I realize that I’m doing all the same things. But I wasn’t thinking about it at the time. And I know some good people.
When all this started, it was mostly my friends. They would make a box and drop it off at my house—that was fine. But then it became friends of friends, and then it became complete strangers. So the police station made a few boxes for us, and I asked if they would accept boxes. They’re open all the time.
Little Helping Hands is a volunteer organization in Austin. Their mission is to give children a service opportunity. They have regular office hours, and they also take boxes.
AF: Do you find out how the parties went?
Gladden: Since we don’t see the party or go to the party, it’s like a random act of kindness. I think it’s hard for the kid volunteers, because they know what a birthday party means, but it’s also a good lesson: you’re a random stranger. It’s a special moment for the birthday child. It’s not about you.
But we’ve gotten some tearjerkers. Great stories. There’s a nice story from a single dad who had a little girl and he didn’t have any money for the rest of the week, and it was her birthday. They brought him this box and he started tearing up.
By Sherida Mock
What Goes in a Birthday Box
- Cake mix
- Cupcake liners, sprinkles or other items for decorating
- Party-themed napkins and plates for 10-12 kids
- Party-themed tablecloth
- Decorations (balloons, streamers or banner)
- Party hats
- Party props (blowers, glow sticks, photo props, etc.)
- Party game, craft or activity for 10-12 kids
- Snacks for 10-12 kids (non-perishable)
- Juice boxes or drinks for 10-12 kids (non-perishable)
- Gift for birthday child (for teens, gift cards are popular)
- Goodie bags for 10-12 kids
- Card addressed from you